Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Spirit of 45 - which 45?

Among the sailors returning victorious from the fight against Fascism in 1945 in the opening scenes of Ken Loach’s documentary film Spirit of 45 would somewhere have been my Uncle Harry and Uncle Jack, each of whom had done years of service in the navy during World War Two. And I imagine that both of my young Uncles-to-be were as keen on a Labour electoral victory, as determined that this country would not go back to the slums and unemployment of the 1930s, as all the other returning servicemen and women in Loach’s film. There was much rousing celebration in this wonderful documentary of Labour’s post-war achievements – the creation of the National Health Service, nationalisation of mines and railways, the building of council houses and new towns – but there were, importantly, some dissenting voices from the Left too. The creation of the National Coal Board actually meant ‘the same old gang back in power’, one ex-miner wryly remarked; ‘we are defending a flawed project’, commented a historian, and Tony Benn offered some astute critical thoughts on top-down reform too.

It was surely one of the greatest prophetic achievements of William Morris’s political imagination to have offered us just such a critique of the Welfare State fifty years before its actual formation, when he pondered in 1893 ‘whether the Society of Inequality might not accept the quasi-socialist machinery above mentioned, and work it for the purpose of upholding that society in a somewhat shorn condition, maybe, but a safe one ... The workers better treated, better organized, helping to govern themselves, but with no more pretence to equality with the rich, nor any more hope for it than they have now’. The achievements of Clement Attlee's 1945 Labour government look all the more precious and poignant, now that so many of them have been destroyed by neo-liberalism from Thatcher onwards; but they were, in Morris’s own term, ‘State socialism’, not socialism proper as he understood it. And we will have to come up with a vision beyond them, a prospective rather than retrospective politics – Spirit of 2045 rather than 1945 – if we are ever to turn that neo-liberal tide.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Introducing 'News from Nowhere'

At the end of Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, the journalist-narrator William Weston, who has decided to settle in Ecotopia rather than return to the dystopian United States, declares: ‘I want to try out some different kinds of writing’. I’ve been wanting to do so too for some time now, which is why my Introduction to News from Nowhere for Florence Boos’s Morris Online Edition takes the form of a catechism between ‘TP’ and an imagined reader of Morris’s utopia (see This is, I believe, the first introduction to the book that has been written in that form, though the long dialogue between old Hammond and William Guest within the text constitutes a kind of precedent here (particularly chapter XI).

I’ve always admired a formulation of Frederic Jameson’s in his discussion of Adorno and Benjamin in Late Marxism, where he evokes ‘the possibility of forms of writing and Darstellung [presentation] that unexpectedly free you from the taboos and constraints of forms learnt by rote and assumed to be inscribed in the nature of things ... the possibility of another kind of writing – which is eventually to say: another kind of thinking’ (p.52). So it is that my year of tweeting and six years of blogging on and around Morris, my catechistic Introduction to his utopia, and above all my idea for News from Nowhere Two, a sequel using Morris’s characters to explore twenty-first-century political dilemmas – all these constitute plans for new kinds of writing or Darstellung. Whether they amount to new thinking too is a judgement for you, dear reader, to make for yourself.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Roman Abramovich Goes for a Swim

The Morris community is understandably excited by Jeremy Deller’s wall painting at this year’s Venice Biennale of a giant William Morris rising from the sea like Neptune and hurling Roman Abramovich’s yacht down to a watery doom. It’s a grand ebullient image certainly, with all the immediate, one-dimensional vigour of Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art comicbook paintings of the 1970s (like ‘Whaam’, for instance, which shows a fighter plane firing its missiles). How enjoyable to see Abramovich getting his comeuppance - a whole series of sacked Chelsea football managers might feel this too - and how invigorating to see Morris turned into an iconic superhero, brusquely meting out justice to the super-rich. We turn from this witty, exuberant image with a rosy glow in our hearts on both counts.

How different Deller’s wall painting is from David Mabb’s exhibition ‘Regime Change Begins at Home’ at the William Morris Gallery, where political slogans past and present are framed within Morris floral fabric designs. Each individual work here is modest and low-key compared to Deller’s enormous wall painting, but Mabb, we might say, is a classical modernist as political artist, in contrast to Deller’s depthless postmodernism. That is to say, Mabb’s Morris-based work has constantly operated by the principle of Eisensteinian montage, clashing discordant realities violently together to generate an effort of thought on the observer’s part which may result in a third term or new concept which goes beyond both of the original images. If I had to choose, I would plump for Mabb’s abstemious, thought-provoking political aesthetic over Deller’s one-dimensional sensuous exuberance; but perhaps we can clash these two opposites together too, and tentatively imagine a future political art which would combine the strengths of both.

Friday, 7 June 2013

James Joyce reads William Morris

In Stephen Hero, the draft version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce tells us that Stephen was ‘captivated by the seeming eccentricities of the prose of Freeman and William Morris. He read them as one would read a thesaurus and made a garner of words’. It has usually been assumed that it is Morris’s late romances which are being referred to here; and one is certainly reminded of the decorously chivalric style of those works in reading, say, the more parodic elements of the ‘Cyclops’ chapter in Ulysses.

But if we were to follow up the Stephen Hero Morris reference, we might want to cover more than the late romances. Take these lines from ‘A Painful Case’ in Dubliners: ‘he had assisted at the meetings of an Irish Socialist Party where he had felt himself a unique figure amidst a score of sober workmen in a garret lit by an inefficient oil-lamp. When the party had divided into three sections, each under its own leader and in its own garret, he had discontinued his attendances’. It is hard not to believe that Joyce - himself a socialist in the early years of the twentieth century - has just come away from reading the first page of News from Nowhere, with its dysfunctional Socialist League meeting at which socialists are divided against anarchists; and that he has carried the fissiparous political tendencies at work there even further in his own story.

The hero of Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses is, like Morris himself, a man who painfully tolerates his wife’s adultery, even if it’s a far cry from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Blazes Boylan; and as parents both Joyce and Morris had to cope with daughters who had life-changing illnesses (Lucia’s schizophrenia, Jenny’s epilepsy). I suspect the Morris-Joyce literary relationship is capable of much further development, and the mention of Morris in Stephen Hero is thus a signpost announcing ‘dig here!’.